Journalist feels ‘horrible’ about revealing Jonah Lehrer’s fabrications

Michael Moynihan does not feel good today, after writing the story that forced Jonah Lehrer to quit his job at The New Yorker and admit he had made up Bob Dylan quotations.

“I don’t want the scalp,” Moynihan said in a phone interview. “It’s not what I am interested in.”

Moynihan described in a story published in Tablet magazine how he sought to confirm seven Dylan quotations in Lehrer’s book “Imagine: How Creativity Works.”

He corresponded with Lehrer for three weeks, starting July 8, in an effort to nail down the elusive sources of Dylan’s comments. They also spoke by phone several times. Lehrer finally admitted Sunday afternoon that he had lied to Moynihan about where he had gotten some of them. Moynihan said he “had an inkling” then that Lehrer would resign.

Lehrer called Moynihan on Monday morning, shortly before the story was published, and told him he would resign. After they talked, “I felt horrible. I felt like shit,” Moynihan said.

“I knew — he knew — this was a situation of his own making,” Moynihan said. He believes his story was “totally fair.” Still, when the result of a story is that “somebody’s life is going to be unalterably changed … it is not a burden you want on yourself.”

Lehrer said in a statement released by his publisher that the quotes Moynihan asked about “either did not exist, were unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes.”

That statement was the first time that Moynihan heard Lehrer admit that some of those quotations had been fabricated. Even Sunday, he said, Lehrer insisted that the quotations were real, but he couldn’t find the sources.

“All I squeezed out of him was the acknowledgement that he had lied to me about all this stuff,” Moynihan said. “I had a feeling from talking to him that he was going to do like OJ [Simpson] and look day and night to find the murderer, the real killer.”

Moynihan’s search

The week of July 4, Moynihan was filling in on The Washington Post’s Right Turn blog. He was thinking of doing a followup on the controversy over Lehrer “recycling” already published material for his New Yorker blog and his book.

He didn’t know much about Lehrer, so he bought a copy of “Imagine” and read the first chapter because it was about Dylan. “A couple of those things struck me as a bit fishy,” he said.

He grew more suspicious when he couldn’t find those quotations in a few places that should have had them. He was pretty sure that Lehrer never talked to Dylan, who is famously reticent toward the press.

When he shared the quotations with a “Dylanologist” friend of his, the friend noted that the quotes didn’t even sound like Dylan.

“Dylan is the most documented musician on the planet,” Moynihan said, “and the obsession that fans have with Bob Dylan ensures that every utterance, every hiccup is available” on the Web or in a book called “The Fiddler Now Upspoke.”

Moynihan sent a friendly email to Lehrer asking for help finding the quotations. Lehrer responded the same day. “I think he regrets ever responding to me.”

The two emailed for weeks, including a break during which Lehrer said he was trying to track down the material. “I never believed him,” Moynihan said of Lehrer’s explanations. “When someone essentially gives you sources that are very, very, very difficult to check, something is up.”

He was referring to Lehrer’s contention that he had gotten some of the quotations from unreleased footage of Martin Scorsese’s “No Direction Home” documentary, which Lehrer supposedly viewed in the company of Dylan’s manager, Jeff Rosen.

Moynihan believes that Lehrer told him that story assuming it would be impossible to check, given Dylan’s indifference to the media. But Moynihan was able to contact Rosen, who had an interest in setting the record straight.

Moynihan said he kept talking to Lehrer to give Lehrer the chance to prove him wrong – perhaps Lehrer was an amazing journalist who had found some undiscovered material that wasn’t widely known. “I didn’t want to be unfair to him, and I didn’t want to be the person who writes a quick blog post and updates it.”

So, knowing what he does now, does Moynihan believe there are more Lehrer falsehoods waiting to be exposed? He doesn’t know for sure, but “as you well know, people tend not to do these things once.”

And what about Dylan, does he know what happened? “My guess is that Dylan doesn’t give a shit.”

Related: Unlike other journalists, Moynihan isn’t in the schadenfreude business (New York Observer)

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  • Dave Holzman

    Michael Moynihan sounds like a very decent human being as well as an excellent journalist.

  • owen.wolfe

    Interesting to compare the recycling/self-plagiarism of Lehrer with the practices of Mark Steyn:

    http://mediaculpapost.blogspot.ca/2012/07/self-plagiarism-recycling-and.html

    Maybe Moynihan should investigate?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=749911534 Anonymous

    MEMO to Michael Moynihan: re ”I don’t want the scalp,” Moynihan said in a phone interview. “It’s not what I am interested in.” NOTE: Michael, this phrase of getting a scalp is an out-dated term relating to White Men and the Indians in the old USA, and while there is some disagreement among linguists whether it is a racist term because it meant White Christians collected the “scalps” of heathen Indians, or, that Indians collected the “scalps” of foreign invader White Men, the main point is that the phrase should be retired and you, of all people, should know that. Sigh. Other than that, amazing legwork and bravo!